Harvard MBA. Trek Bicycle executive. State Commerce secretary. Dane County Boys & Girls Club president. Madison School Board member.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke’s resume might be well-suited for a Fortune 500 company, but if she wins on Nov. 4, it would be a political leap not seen in Wisconsin since Lee Dreyfus went from university chancellor to governor more than three decades ago.
Burke has been running for the past year as the anti-Scott Walker, the Republican incumbent who polarized the state with Act 10, the law that largely ended collective bargaining for most public workers. Her central argument has been that as a former business executive, she is in a better position to spur job growth than Walker, who is failing in his promise to help create 250,000 private-sector jobs in his first term.
If she wins, Burke said the theme of her inaugural address will be “an end to the divisiveness.”
“We’re going to set a different tone,” Burke said in an interview last week. “We’re all on the same team.”
But with only limited experience in elected office and state government, she’ll face a steep learning curve in the Capitol and likely a hostile Republican Legislature.
“This reality might be the most important aspect of her time in the office,” UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden said of a potential Burke governorship. “The Assembly is not going to agree with her on fundamental issues such as collective bargaining, voter ID, the minimum wage, spending on health care and education, redistricting reform and changes to the tax code. Reaching agreement on the next biennial budget could be a tremendous battle.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, compared Burke’s political inexperience to that of President Barack Obama, who ascended to the presidency as a freshman U.S. senator promising to change the tone in Washington, but who has largely clashed with congressional Republicans.
“If people love gridlock, they’re going to love having Mary Burke as governor,” Vos said.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said if legislative Republicans take the approach of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who in 2010 said “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” — “then she has to find a way around them.”
“She needs to reach out to the four corners of the state and reach out to leaders that may not agree with her completely and find a middle path to move forward,” Barca said. “The people of Wisconsin won’t tolerate replicating the Washington-style gridlock.”
Burke waves off criticism about her political experience, saying she’ll put in place a team of experts experienced in state government.
“I think there are a lot of people who questioned whether I could run this campaign, and see where I am today,” said Burke, who in the latest Marquette Law School Poll is tied with Walker.
Asked which experience prepares her to deal with a Republican Legislature that has become increasingly conservative, she mentions her work developing the AVID/TOPS college readiness program, which required collaboration between the Madison School District, Boys & Girls Club, UW-Madison and the business community.
The Rev. David Smith, a former Boys & Girls Club director who helped recruit Burke to join the board in 1998, said Burke succeeded because when her heart was set on getting something done, “she wasn’t going to let the simplest things stop her.”
Her significant personal wealth also helped, he said.
“I know it’s going to be a different game being governor because money isn’t going to be able to do the talking when you’ve got a contrasting political party,” Smith said.
UW-Stevens Point political science professor Ed Miller said though Burke may not have as much political experience as many previous governors, she has management training and experience running large business divisions and a state agency.
“She has more background than someone who came from one of the businesses and was just elected,” Miller said, noting several governors who came from the private sector, including Walt Kohler Sr. and Jr. and Oscar Rennebohm, though none since 1960.
Bill Kraus, Dreyfus’ chief of staff and current board chairman for Common Cause Wisconsin, said the moderate Republican was able to work with a Democratic Legislature in the late 1970s because he kept an open door and was an effective communicator.
“It isn’t rocket science,” Kraus said. “There have been good governors who have come with no experience and bad governors who have come with a lot of experience.”
Finding common ground
Burke said one of her first actions as governor will be to meet one-on-one with Republican legislators and find common ground, just as she did during the campaign when she met with Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce president Kurt Bauer, a Walker ally. She said she’s open to appointing Republicans to her Cabinet “as long as they align with my vision for the state and are committed to my administration.”
So far the state’s largest business lobby isn’t buying Burke’s overtures. Scott Manley, WMC’s vice president of government relations, pointed to Burke’s support for raising the minimum wage, restoring public-sector collective bargaining and the Affordable Care Act as evidence of her anti-business views.
“Given what we know about her stance on key issues, it is easy to draw the conclusion that electing Mary Burke as governor would equate to a third term for Gov. (Jim) Doyle,” Manley said.
Burke has dismissed conservatives’ eagerness to link her to her former boss. But she’s also hesitated when asked to distinguish her views from the Democratic Party.
Asked in a State Journal editorial board interview how she differs from Democratic thinking, she hemmed for several seconds before saying she disagrees with environmentalists about blocking mining in the state. But she also opposes the mine permitting legislation that Republicans passed, preferring a version that many Democrats supported.
That was one of several times Burke came off as unpolished on the campaign trail, including when she was asked by reporters to define plagiarism after it was revealed her jobs plan included passages lifted verbatim from other Democratic candidates, and when asked during a debate to say something nice about Walker.
But despite the rough edges, she has largely surprised national political observers, who didn’t expect the race to be so close.
“When she first ran, a lot of people questioned her ability as a candidate. They’re no longer questioning it,” said retiring Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who has clashed with his own party but has not endorsed in the race.
“It would be similarly unwise to assume that if she were elected as governor she wouldn’t have the ability to enforce her will.”